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Protecting Our Elders During COVID-19: Hidden Gems Under the Extra Layers of Protection

Gina Mack

Child and Family Services Specialist Supervisor,

Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services

August 31, 2020

I distinctly remember it being a very hot day in May of this year. I was dressed in full PPE and sweating profusely in the room of a very feisty and outspoken woman who had COVID-19. I had been interviewing COVID-19 patients for the past two hours. This woman started chastising me. “What are you doing in my room? Don’t you know there is a pandemic going on?” I simply said, “because it’s my job.” I can tell this woman hadn’t found herself speechless very often, but she was at that moment and just stared at me in disbelief. COVID-19 wasn’t going to stop me from doing my job.

When protecting people is what you do for a living, you are used to looking out for bad actors (scammers, dishonest caregivers, etc). So, you can imagine the collective shudder that rippled through our agency in March as COVID-19 started inching its way closer to the Midwest. Our first and foremost thoughts were for the safety and well-being of our elderly clients. We wondered if our caseloads would go up; or worse, if they went way down because no one would be checking on our vulnerable people. Many of us were concerned about if and how our clients would continue to receive services and food. We worried about seeing our clients in person and exposing them or ourselves to COVID-19.

Prior to COVID-19, APS workers could freely walk into any facility, hospital, or be welcomed into a client’s home. Suddenly, all hospitals and most long-term care facilities were turning us away. We had to switch to Tele-Health visits for hospitalized clients. At times we had to settle with a phone call. Our workers were visiting people at the windows of their assisted living or nursing facility. We had to learn to assess for injuries and signs of neglect using this new set up; all the while overcoming our client’s cognitive, physical, and hearing impairments. It was quickly decided that we would be required to wear masks at all home visits. We would also bring masks to private homes and invite a client to wear one if they were having symptoms. Our APS hotline representatives began asking questions about COVID-19 exposure and symptoms of all of our accepted intakes so we would know what we were walking into. We learned how to don PPE for the times it was necessary to go into facilities. Overall, there were very few cases that we were unable to assess due to COVID-19. The vast majority of our clients still welcomed us into their homes and participated in our assessments. Most people were able to get the services they needed with few delays. Our caseloads have remained about the same. We are getting into some hospitals again. It really has been just business as usual…with a few more layers.

What amazes me the most is the resilience and kindness of our clients and our community. I read a quote online that said something like hard times make nice people nicer. I don’t believe many things that I read online these days, but I really do believe that. Almost immediately, a former co-worker’s wife made masks for our entire office. Other community members donated masks and other supplies to other offices. Two amazing ladies from the Department of Licensing and Public Health drove an hour to help a coworker and I put on PPE since we had never done it before. I never even caught their names. I watched food pantries start mobile services, and people were reaching out making sure our clients had food; not to mention our wonderful clients who accepted our help during these times and who allowed us into their lives knowing the risks. They are the true gems! I learned to never stop looking for the gems. They are hidden sometimes, but they are always there…at least in this great community. It has made a world of difference for our APS workers who put themselves at risk daily to protect our most vulnerable.